Charleston has been grappling with a singular question for the last two years: Where do we go from here?
On the eve of the anniversary of a racially-motivated mass shooting on June 17, 2015 that killed nine worshipers at Emanuel AME Church, residents continued to wrestle with how to face a complicated historical legacy of slavery and racism, and how to build a better future.
To that end, a diverse panel of speakers including politicians, law enforcement, religious leaders and activists, gathered at Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St., for The Charleston Forum. They discussed economics; education; policing; criminal justice; the relationship between history and the present; and the "Charleston experience."
For Jennifer Pinckney, wife of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and pastor at Emanuel who was killed during the shooting, returning to Charleston remains difficult.
"It feels like it was just yesterday," said Pinckney in an interview before her panel appearance. "The girls miss their father. We just have to keep moving forward."
During opening statements, Mayor John Tecklenburg recalled his run for office in 2015 and how the overwhelming question in the community was what would happen after 40 years under Mayor Joe Riley.
"On June 17 of that year, I realized the question had changed in the community ... to what happens after Mother Emanuel," Tecklenburg said. "We're gathered here in a common interest, but only by gaining an understanding of these differing (perspectives) can we carry forward a united version of a better future in Charleston."
Through the evening, panelists dissected issues like the impact of a lack of early access to quality education, how law enforcement policies like the War on Drugs have impacted black communities, and what should be done with reminders of the South's legacy of slavery like the Confederate Battle Flag and the statue of John C. Calhoun in Marion Square.
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who moderated the panel on criminal justice and policing, said he hoped the night's discussions would lead to action.
"We are all assembled here to discuss policy ideas, to start moving the needle on substantial legislative issues," Kimpson said, before the panel. "It's important to focus on what those who died (in the Emanuel shooting) stood for."
Another panelist, Kassy Alia, founded the Columbia-based nonprofit Heroes in Blue after her husband, Forest Acres Police Officer Gregory Alia, was killed in the line of duty in September 2015.
Alia hoped that the discussions would bring a spirit of openness and empathy.
"We need to always be looking at places to grow," she said, in an interview prior to her panel appearance. "We have so much to celebrate. Having dialogues is something we can do every day.
The event, which ran from 5-10 p.m., featured U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, Yale American History Professor David Blight, Malcolm Graham, brother of Cynthia Graham Hurd, who was killed in the Emanuel shooting and the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, pastor at Emanuel, among others.
Pinckney said she hopes people will be willing to roll up their sleeves and work to create change moving forward.
"To start the work is always the hardest part," she said. "Clementa wasn't one who just sat up on the mountain and watched. We have so many individuals who like to just sit high and look low. People will say — hey, let me leave the mountain and find a solution."